Patrick Mooney, housing consultant and news editor of Housing, Management & Maintenance magazine discusses how the push to demolish ageing buildings could seriously undermine social housing’s growth agenda.
Efforts to increase the stock of council housing to meet the growing demand from homeless and overcrowded families, could be seriously damaged by the need to demolish or refurbish high rise blocks erected in the 1960s and 70s.
A growing number of tower blocks across the country are approaching the end of their useful lives (or have already long passed those dates) and require countless millions of pounds to be spent on them to tackle their growing list of disrepair items. The list covers everything from water ingress, condensation and mould to big ticket items like leaking roofs, unsafe electrics, asbestos, inadequate fire safety and draughty windows.
Under pressure from the Housing Secretary Michael Gove, the social housing regulator and the Housing Ombudsman, social landlords are having to redouble their efforts to upgrade the standard of rental housing they let out, while at the same time trying to build new homes for the more than 1.3 million people stuck on housing waiting lists.
This is happening at the same time as landlords are being tasked with retrofitting energy efficiency into their housing stock as well as upgrading the fire and safety components of residential buildings. Combined together this is quite a storm that is hitting social housing at the same time, while financial resources are also under severe pressure. It really is a tough ask.
The death of two-year-old Awaab Ishak from prolonged exposure to mouldy conditions in his parents’ Rochdale flat prompted Gove to apply even more pressure on social landlords over the quality of accommodation they provide.
Under the new Awaab’s Law, social housing landlords will need to investigate and fix health hazards, including damp and mould, within strict new time limits. Timescales of 14 days for a landlord to investigate a problem and seven days to make good on the repairs are being consulted on. Or they will need to rehouse the tenants where a home cannot be made safe.
Failure to comply will attract attention from the various watchdogs overseeing the sector. The social housing regulator is being given new powers to proactively inspect landlords, to issue unlimited fines over poor or dangerous housing and in the worst cases to order changes in the management of properties.
Meanwhile the Housing Ombudsman is being tasked with ensuring landlords learn from past mistakes. The ombudsman will be able to instruct landlords to measure their service against guidance on issues such as damp and mould, to help drive improvements following complaints from tenants.
As a result, social landlords are facing a high stakes Hobson’s Choice, where they can tackle poor conditions or face the consequences. All the choices are likely to involve spending huge sums of money at some stage – either voluntarily, or under duress from the regulator and the ombudsman.
DEMOLISH & REBUILD OR REFURB?
The situation is perhaps best demonstrated in the capital city where a growing number of London councils are consulting tenants on plans to demolish their homes, as refurbishment work is proving to be prohibitively expensive, represents poor value for money and is often incapable of delivering modern living standards.
Among the latest examples of this dilemma are the outer London boroughs of Enfield and Croydon, which are situated on opposite sides of the capital, but face almost identical problems.
In the north and bordering the leafy suburbs of Hertfordshire is Enfield Council, where members recently decided to knock down two 17-storey blocks after it estimated their refurbishment would cost more than £50m, or roughly £260,000 per flat – but that is just the cost of making them habitable.
Shropshire and Cheshire Houses on the Shires Estate in Edmonton were built in the 1960s and comprise 204 homes. According to a report for the council’s cabinet, the blocks have become “increasingly difficult and costly to maintain” due to the way they were built – using large panel system construction – and “limited resources” for their maintenance.
The council estimates the cost of retaining the buildings in a safe state of repair over 30 years would be £53m, with £40m of this needing to be spent in the next two to three years. This estimate does not even include the cost of such work as replacing external cladding, replacing the lifts and upgrading the lobbies and stairwells. None of this work is cheap!
More than 75% of residents who responded to a recent consultation exercise run by the council, backed plans to be moved into alternative housing rather than remaining in the two high-rise blocks.
WORST HOUSING CONDITIONS
Across London to the far south, where Croydon reaches down into the Surrey commuter belt, a similar issue is being wrestled with by the local authority and its tenants on the Regina Road estate in South Norwood. The estate first hit the headlines just over two years ago in March 2021 when ITV broadcast one of its early features on poor housing in the social sector and the appalling conditions which some tenants were having to endure.
The estate was built in 1965, was re-clad in 1999 and had water sprinklers fitted after the Grenfell tower fire. But two years ago a TV news film crew found that in one of the blocks water was running down internal walls that were black with mould, water was damaging ceilings and floor coverings as well as posing an electrocution risk to the residents. Furniture and personal possessions were being destroyed. Experts called the conditions among the worst they had ever seen.
Two years on from then, the council has been consulting tenants on whether they should demolish most of the estate, including three 11-storey high-rise blocks and four medium rise blocks, comprising 191 homes in total. The council is proposing to replace the existing homes with between 380 and 450 new homes, subject to planning conditions and of course, the availability of money for the work.
At the risk of tempting fate, I would guess the Regina Road estate tenants will vote for its demolition and their rehousing, rather than for another round of refurbishment works. Writing that sentence is a remarkably easy task, whereas putting it into effect will be a wholly different challenge.
A potentially even bigger issue for the council is that the Regina Road tower blocks are typical of a number of other high rises across the borough, where more than 20 tower blocks are of a similar age, design and construction type. If these blocks experience the same problems as those at Regina Road, then the council is facing an extraordinarily large bill to sort things out.
QUANTITY OR QUALITY
You may have noticed that both the Shires and Regina Road estates were built during the 1960s – at a time when councils were under enormous pressure to build homes in huge numbers and at speed. After the post war building boom was over, the rate of council house building rose again during the 60s to hit another peak in 1967 when 159,300 new homes were completed across England and Wales.
To deal with the pressures existing at the time, the new housing was generally built at high density and a relatively low cost. There is an awful lot of this sort of housing up and down the country, much of it in our larger towns and cities or on peripheral estates. Some of it has already been demolished as part of expensive regeneration projects, or to tackle low demand and unpopularity.
Council house building has cut back dramatically since then although attempts are being made to mount something of a revival in recent years. If the country is to build 300,000 new homes a year then councils and HAs probably need to be building between 75,000 and 100,000 of them.
This is on a completely different scale to the house building of the 60s and 70s, but the Greater London Authority and London Mayor have recently been celebrating the news that they have started work on more than 10,000 new homes in the past year and will have met their target of starting 20,000 new council homes by 2024 a year early.
The capital’s mayor Sadiq Khan said that work began on more council-built homes in London in 2022 than in any year since the 1970s. But in a sobering comment he added that London was building double the amount of council housing than the rest of England combined together. The 4,325 council homes that were started in the rest of England (in 2021/22) was a “national scandal,” he said, and called for new government funding exclusively for the building of council homes.
However, it was also acknowledged that despite this success with building new homes there are persistent problems. London Councils estimates that 166,000 Londoners – equivalent to the entire population of Oxford – are currently homeless and living in temporary accommodation. With demolitions continuing at pace it is difficult to see how the building of new social homes will be able to make significant inroads into the waiting lists. Even with recent falls in the number of Right to Buy sales, it is becoming very difficult for councils to make real additions to their stock totals.